When an author says a book she’s written is the Book of Her Heart, what does that mean? In this ongoing blog series, I’ve invited guest authors to reveal what they consider the Book of Their Heart—and share why this book holds a distinct and special place apart from all others they’ve written.
Here, to help celebrate her book birthday this week for A Blind Spot for Boys, I have Justina Chen sharing with us the two books of her heart, and how they exposed different pieces of her heart in different ways…
Guest post by Justina Chen
The word sizzled in the conference room the way scandalous ideas do when they’re brought into the light. An intake of breath. A nervous smile or two as the twenty-five writers around me all tried to decipher where we were going with this.
We waited for more, but Patti Lee Gauch, former editorial director of Philomel, fell silent. She twiddled a ruler in her hands while we tasted that word in our heads: Attitude! Was this the cryptic method she used when working with the likes of Eric Carle and Brian Jacques? As if in answer, Patti kicked off her flat shoes, stood before us in her socks: four-foot-ten-inches of life-crackling wisdom. Four-foot-ten inches of conviction that can only come from a lifetime of wordcraft. Only then did she wield the ruler to punctuate her main point as if it was a sword in her personal battle against boring prose.
“We need characters”—point!—“who sass”—slash!—“the world.” The ruler fell to Patti’s side, but the command might as well have been written in white, hot electricity.
Attitude! Sass! They were twined strands of a story’s DNA. They obviously catalyzed the writers around me who were tapping away at their keyboards, word-inspired. Unlike me. I set my pen down, defeated. How do you write with attitude when the world itself has sassed the sass right out of you? A few years ago, I found myself the unwitting co-star in a midlife cliché. Eight weeks into what was supposed to be a two-year move to China, my then-husband admitted that he’d been having an affair with his secretary in Shanghai. Hence, our move. Hence, my return to a full-time job after finding that our finances had been ravaged. Hence, a writing pace that had dwindled to a few halfhearted sentences a day. And that right there was the crux of my writerly problem: my heart had been ripped in half.
But far, far worse, I watched helplessly as my kids fell into emotional catatonia, prone and unmoving on the rug for days after they learned that their father was leaving us…in a country where we barely spoke more than ten words of the language and hardly knew anyone. Weeks later, when my pre-teen son grunted at his dad on the phone, no longer even deigning to form words, I knew then that the most tragic legacy of the ensuing divorce wasn’t a broken family. It was my children’s broken hearts.
So I did what I think any writer-mom would do: I wrote my kids a love letter. A long love letter that became Return to Me, a novel that illuminated the pain and upheaval of betrayal. A novel that detailed the power of true, abiding love. A mother’s love. It spilled over with love. Sass, not so much.
But attitude—that exhortation traveled from Patti’s lips to my ears. A sweet nudge to laugh again—and to make my readers laugh. A wise hand beckoning to me: Come, create with joy—so my readers would be filled with joy. Still, like Prufrock, did I dare disturb the universe? Did I dare sass again as I had in my previous novels filled with girls who sassed the world’s definition of beauty and success and racial identity?
Before the cataclysm in my life, I had confessed in passing to my agent how I went to thirteen proms. Yes, thirteen proms. (Boys from other high schools; a headstart in freshman year. It’s possible. Do the math.) He started laughing. Guffawing, actually, if you want to be perfectly accurate. When he finally stopped gasping for air, he said, “There’s your next novel.” But then the dark period washed over me, and Thirteen Proms sounded like a horror story. And sorry, I was already living my own. So the idea shriveled and was shelved…until those beckoning words: sass and attitude.
So sass I did through a major rewrite about Shana Wilde, a girl deemed a Wilde child just because she hit the gene lottery with the trifecta of blonde hair, long legs, and willowy figure. Sass I did for a girl who’s catnip for boys, the Helen of high school. Sass I did for a girl nursing a secret that no one—not even her best friend—knows: she’s been dumped by her much older and very much clandestine boyfriend. As a result, she puts herself and her stomped upon heart on a Boy Moratorium. Well, life cannot take attitude away forever, not for Shana who is a sassy girl at heart. And not for me.
Books, like life, have a reason and a season. So if Return to Me was the book of my broken heart written in a season of sorrow, then A BLIND SPOT FOR BOYS is the book of my joyous heart written in a glorious season of sassiness.
I dare you not to like the book.
Sass, how nice to be reacquainted with you.
 That said, it’s cool if you don’t so long as you aren’t mean about it. Woman to woman, let’s make a pact not to dehydrate anyone of a single ounce of sass. Life will take care of that all on its own if we allow it to. We women, instead, need to sister each other.
Justina Chen is an award-winning novelist for young adults whose most recent book, A BLIND SPOT FOR BOYS, was called “an emotional and beautiful story” by Booklist. North of Beautiful was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and Barnes & Noble. Her other novels include Girl Overboard (a Junior Library Guild premiere selection) and Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), which won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Additionally, she co-founded readergirlz, a cutting-edge literacy and social media project for teens, which won the National Book Foundation’s Prize for Innovations in Reading. When she isn’t writing for teens, Justina is a story strategist for executives and leads storytelling workshops at companies like Disney and AT&T. She loves kicking back with her coconut black tea and hanging out with her kids.